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Heart of Sound and Light:
La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela's The Well-Tuned Piano In The Magenta Lights

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Dusted's Kevin Macneil Brown discusses La Monte Young's Magnum Opus, The Well-Tuned Piano.

Heart of Sound and Light:
La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela's The Well-Tuned Piano In The Magenta Lights

Quantum Physics has been knocking on the door of the idea that spirit and matter are one; that it all comes down to vibration. Audible vibration is, of course, sound. Composer La Monte Young has devoted his creative life to a continuing exploration of the intersections of spirit, sound, and empirical musical tinkering. The result has been a rich and singular body of music that has the power to transform, for those who will listen carefully and honestly, the sensual and cognitive processes of music itself.

All this can be heard – and seen – quite effectively on the DVD release of Young’s Magnum Opus and nearly life-long laboratory, The Well-Tuned Piano. Bathed in the subtle-yet-powerful, slowly-shifting hues of long-time partner Marian Zazeela’s light sculpture, this six-hour-plus live performance is an astonishing, if occasionally challenging, document of a composer’s committed journey toward conjuring the heart of light and sound. (The DVD itself is somewhat of a talismanic object: packaged simply but elegantly, with copious and detailed liner-notes photo-copied on magenta paper, it’s available only from Young and Zazeelas’s own Mela Foundation, and does not come cheap; all this, whether intended or not, gives the overall presentation an air of rarity and importance.)

La Monte Young comes from the post-Cage/Cowell generation of American composers who became known as minimalists, working, starting in the 1950s and 1960s, at the boundaries of “art music,” jazz, and rock amplification. For Young and other composers of his generation, the incorporation of non-western musical, aesthetic, and philosophical systems became a crucial creative ingredient. In La Monte Young’s case, the teachings of Indian master musician Pandit Pran Nath would become an important influence.

Young formed, in the 1960s, a project called the Dream Syndicate, a direct precursor to the Velvet Underground. For decades now, he has been committed to the exploration of just intonation, returning his piano to the richness of a tuning system that strips away the compromises of the equal temperament that our ears have come to accept for the past few hundred years. (Equal temperament being a tuning system that, while minimizing the dissonances inherent in scales derived from pure mathematical proportions, also tends to minimize the unique aspects of each tone and its relationship to others.) Beyond music itself, Young’s collaborations with light artist Zazeela have sought to be all-encompassing in their scope of sound, visuals, and ever-unfolding experience.

For my own immersion in The Well-Tuned Piano In The Magenta Lights, I chose a rainy, humid day in late summer. The windows to my listening room were open, and the sounds of birdsong and falling rain were, by necessity, a background – at least initially – to the recorded performance; later, those sounds would disappear into that aforementioned all-encompassing harmonic and visual haze. I sat in expectation through the long, silent opening credits as they appeared over a view of, first, the piano bathed in the magenta lights, then the arrival of the composer/performer himself, sitting at the piano, waiting to play. The first notes seemed to explode, despite their tentative gentleness, within the nearly silent sound-field of my own room, jumping out from the smaller, flatter room on the television screen.

The long journey of the work itself unfolded in remarkable ways. Clusters and chords formed and disassembled; arpeggiated phrases both gentle and violent, expressive and ruminative, took shape, drifted apart. The harmonic relationships created from the piano’s just-intonation and the composer’s choice of notes produced shimmering ghost tones: bells and horns, choirs and gamelans appeared at the edges of the sonic horizon. And all of this unfolded, please remember, within a slow, organic time-frame, with a sense of calm, deliberate inevitability. Long sections of static, lush drones were juxtaposed with stretches of frantic percussive pianistics. The overall affect was of a music that existed in space and time continuously; an on-going flow that Young was catching and riding for a while, like a surfer would catch and ride a wave. (Of course, this is befitting the work of a composer who was at the center of something called The Theatre of Eternal Music.)

I found myself, over the piece’s duration, sometimes oddly captivated by the sight of the composer/player: squirming once in a while in his seat, sweating, listening, at times, with rapt concentration. Other times I focused on the luscious and calming hues of Zazeela’s light bath. I got up and did chores, too, keeping the music foremost in my consciousness until the visuals again drew me back in. After a while it was as if the magenta room and its music had actually spread out from my TV to take over my own listening space. Most of all, I had the experience that, unlike most music, which seeks to resolve dissonance by means of sublimation within the gravity, the pull, of a tonic note or vibration, Young’s music was finding its resolution somewhere deep inside me, the listener. By the end of The Well-Tuned Piano In The Magenta Lights I felt as musically sated as I had in a long time; sated, but somehow inspired by the infinite possibilities that the piece suggested and touched upon

While it might seem that La Monte Young has, as a tone scientist, done in The Well-Tuned Piano for just intonation what J.S Bach did for equal-tempered tuning in The Well-Tempered Clavier, there is an obvious, if subtle, parallel between Young and another, very different, composer: Claude Debussy, with his exploration of music as color and pigment, his incorporation of Eastern aesthetics. (Indeed, Debussy and fellow French impressionist Ravel are honored by having sections of The Well-Tuned Piano named for them.) Most of all, there’s a sense that both composers, Young and Debussy, share a particular and powerful gift for sound magic and musical conjurings; a manifestation of infinite possibility itself, made clearly audible to composer/explorer and listener alike.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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